Gregg Bordowitz on queer Jewish identity – the forward


In 1993, artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz premiered his film “Fast Trip, Long Drop,” a documentary that was not quite a scathing critique of media coverage of the AIDS crisis.

The film, in which Bordowitz plays a provocative talk show guest named Alter Allesman – in Yiddish for “old everybody” – was shown widely at LGBTQ and Jewish film festivals. After a performance at KlezCamp, a now defunct Klezmer and Yiddish music festival, a participant stood up and asked Bordowiz a question.

“Why did you bring this here?” ” He asked. “Is this a good thing for the Jews? “

Bordowitz, now 57, says audience members continue to ask this question about the film – still his most famous work – at nearly every screening at Jewish festivals.

Bordowitz’s Jewish education has long been a source of inspiration for his art. But when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he found himself, like other gay Jews, on the margins of Jewish society and largely abandoned by mainstream institutions.

In response, he said, he and his peers created their own lore and commentary. Her sense of shifting identities has become, alongside resistance and radicalization unleashed by the AIDS crisis and other public health failures, a defining theme of her work – a theme clearly apparent in “I Wanna Be Well.” », A retrospective of his work currently on display at MoMA PS1.

This exhibition, which includes films, performances, drawings and poems, debuted at the Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College, then was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to MoMA PS1, where it will be on display until October 11. Bordowitz takes particular pride in the fact that the MoMA PS1 is located in Queens, the neighborhood where he first learned to paint.

He grew up in the Glen Oaks neighborhood, raised largely by his mother and grandparents, who took to speaking Yiddish every time he entered the room. He quickly learned to understand the language and to tone down his “yinglish” with non-Jewish friends. “It was my first awareness of the difference,” he said. Code shifting, or the adaptation of language and presentation to different cultural contexts, would later become a major theme in Bordowitz’s work.

At the insistence of his grandfather, he attended an Orthodox Hebrew school and soon fell in love with both religion and art. As a child, his mother sent him to a neighbor’s for amateur painting lessons, where he worked alongside adults, often making Jewish-themed paintings. Shortly after his Bar Mitzvah, his mother and stepfather moved the family to Long Island, where he found refuge for his nascent queer identity in his school’s art room.

“My family wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer or rabbi, in that order,” he said. “I knew I would go to visual arts school.

How Judaism Became Part of the Art and Activism of Gregg Bordowitz

In 1982, at age 18, Bordowitz moved to Manhattan to study at the School of Visual Arts. He quickly turned to the Lower East Side, where he relished the enduring Jewish character of the neighborhood, delis and Judaica stores.

“Part of being a downtown artist was that a lot of the people I knew were Jewish,” he said. “We really loved being in the neighborhood where our grandparents landed. He joined a thriving queer Yiddishkeit scene, defined by a renewed and counter-cultural interest in American Ashkenazi cultural touchstones.

“Klezmer bands were forming like punk rock bands everywhere,” he said. “I was looking for a way to be an anti-Zionist American Jew, and I found it there.”

Then came the AIDS epidemic, which hit hard the queer community of the Lower East Side of Bordowitz. Bordowitz has been heavily involved in HIV / AIDS activism, including as an early member of the popular political group ACT UP. His activism led him to work in partnership with religious institutions, including black churches and Quaker congregations.

But, said Bordowitz, “when it came to talking to Jewish organizations, it was not welcome,” he said. “I was very angry with organized Judaism during the AIDS crisis. “

Yet while Jewish organizations, he said, were not receptive to his advocacy, gay Jews were heavily involved in HIV / AIDS activism. In its early days, some media confused ACT UP with a Jewish organization, in part because its first leaflet featured a Jewish star and Martin Niemöller’s poem “First They Came”. And in 1989, Bordowitz and other queer Jews in the movement held the first ACT UP seder. This first year, the seder drew 30 participants, before doubling to 60 people in the second year and 90 people in the third.

“We tied the seder to our fight,” Bordowitz said.

Bordowitz’s creative work also began to expand and change at the onset of the AIDS health crisis. He began using cinema as a tool to document ACT UP protests and co-founded a media collective dedicated to the group. He also began producing video diaries and improvised films about himself and his friends, intended to counter traditional narratives of the AIDS crisis and create complex accounts of the human toll of the epidemic.

In 1988 Bordowitz was diagnosed with HIV. In 1993, while working on “Fast Trip, Long Drop”, he fell extremely ill. Unlike many of his friends, Bordowitz survived, and his close contact with death became a major theme in his work of art at the time. In 1996, when a breakthrough was made in the understanding of drug therapies for the management of HIV, dramatically improving the available treatments, Bordowitz used charcoal to draw a series of six self-portraits examining the effects of early treatments on her. body.

Bordowitz’s health improved, and in 1997 he found a way to revert to some form of institutional Judaism when six of his friends from ACT UP decided they wanted to have B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies for adults. They chose to conduct these ceremonies through the progressive Jewish Kolot Chayeinu congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Bordowitz has been a member ever since.

“I have found a spiritual home,” he said of the temple. Even after he began teaching film at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1998, he continued to visit New York on a monthly basis and remained attached to the congregation. These days, her religious practice includes wearing a kippah and observing the Shabbat.

And Judaism continues to affect and inspire his work, which today often ponders his identity as a gay Jewish man living with HIV. As his art has continued to evolve, he said, the reasons he continues to weave shifting and intersecting parts of his identity have changed little since he was a young man showing “Fast Trip, Long. Drop ”at KlezCamp.

When this audience member asked his question a long time ago – implicating, according to Bordowitz, a question about why he would insist on bringing together his identities as a practicing Jewish man and a queer person living with HIV – Bordowitz had a ready answer.

“What part of me do you want to leave the room?” ” he said. “What part of me do you want to stay? “

How Judaism Became Part of the Art and Activism of Gregg Bordowitz

How Judaism Became Part of the Art and Activism of Gregg Bordowitz


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